Strategy

Performance: Wired CEOs learn to tune out, turn off

Managers who happily multi-task might be doing themselves, and their subordinates, a disfavour.

UNITED STATES – CIRCA 1950s: Two people inside office at meeting. (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

 

Bill Gross doesn’t have a BlackBerry. He doesn’t have a cellphone. He answers only select e-mails, and—save for when his wife calls—picks up the phone only three or four times a day. When the co-founder of California-based Pacific Investment Management Co. (PIMCO) isn’t sitting in the middle of a 70-person trading room or staring at a Bloomberg machine, he’s doing yoga at a health club across the street, thinking of his best ideas. “I’m away from the office, away from the noise,” Gross said in an interview with CNN. “Not to mention that standing on your head increases the blood flow to your brain.”

In an increasingly connected world, some CEOs prefer to kick it old school, avoiding the short attention span that comes with being plugged in. They have assistants that handle all their communication, prefer reading printed out e-mails, and don’t dip their toes in any social media. That level of isolation is unrealistic for most executives, but learning when to connect and when to disconnect is essential in today’s business culture.

A 2011 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that those who multi-tasked took up to 30% longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. According to Seth Godin, author of 13 bestselling business books, the job of a CEO is to think of big ideas rather than micro-communicating. The danger of trying to do both? “You will spend your whole day putting out fires instead of building something new,” he says. “There are plenty of CEOs who know enough to make good decisions but not enough to do the jobs of people working for them.”

But there is a downside to being out of touch, not least of which, it can make you seem aloof. Godin gives the example of Nike’s former CEO Philip Knight, who would not speak or meet with people he hadn’t heard of. “What Phil was saying is, ‘If you don’t know someone well enough in my inner circle to be brought along to a meeting, then I don’t want to know you,” says Godin, who adds being impermeable to the public is generally bad for business.

Similarly, not being open to social media can make your company less competitive. David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, did an analysis of Fortune 100 companies to analyze the return on investment of social media. He found the stock of those companies using it grew by 5% more than those that didn’t. Scott says getting comfortable with an internal social network to communicate with employees is a good place to start.

Also, make sure the time you do disconnect is built into your schedule, so the rest of your team knows about it. Mike Splinter, CEO of software company Applied Materials, takes two hours before 9 a.m. to himself, according to McKinsey’s report. “Create a norm,” says Derek Dean of leadership development company the Exetor Group. “Say ‘Hey, no meetings before nine or after four.’” When you’re not reachable at the office, stay connected so you don’t become a bottleneck to productivity. Turn your phone on when you’re sitting in an airport or in the back of a taxi so people can run stuff by you.

Most important, if you’re the kind of person who prefers slow-cooked business, make sure you alter the company’s schedule accordingly. Get monthly reports early, so you can block off a chunk of time to review them. “Then you can sit down in front of the fireplace with a glass of Scotch and a cigar and flip through the pages to make comments,” says Dean, “while the Silicon Valley exec reads their iPad at the stoplight while driving.”